Author Matthew Stadler is coming to Seattle’s Town Hall next week to talk about a topic that probably will make some folks wince.  His claim: suburbs increasingly embody urbane values—in particular, economic and cultural diversity—that are vanishing from the center city.  He sees this trend in the riotous hodgepodge that’s grown up in the inner ring of suburbs surrounding Seattle:

Anyone interested in the city—in the close press of strangers, in surprise, class-mixing, cosmopolitanism—has long since left the bourgeois pleasure grounds of the center to explore the urban landscapes springing up in the margins of the metropolitan area.  In Seattle, this is as easy as a bus ride to White Center, where Hispanic and Southeast Asian mix with the remaining Scots and Irish, then south into close-packed Des Moines (the state’s fourth most densely populated city), then east through Tukwila and Renton, with its huge Sikh population, then north into Kirkland (home of the region’s only Bollywood cinema) and Bellevue, where the Crossroads shopping center has made a bustling market square inside an old mall—a culinary and cultural entrepôt that draws the Eastside’s considerable Persian population to mix with Japanese, Korean, Anglo, and the area’s upper-class South Indians, who want little to do with their Punjabi cousins in Renton.

Stadler lays out his thesis quite nicely here.  He’s a skilled and smooth writer, and while it would be easy to caricature his perspective as reflexively anti-city (or, really, anti-urban elite), that’s a mistake.  He’s making a more subtle point:  the old idea that “city” and “suburb” are separate and distinct entities—either physically or culturally—no longer holds water.  He finds common intellectual ground with a German architect and planner, Thomas Sieverts (more here), who rejects the urban-suburban-exurban distinction in favor of the notion of the “in-between city,” a single entity that encompasses the entire built environment in all its permutations.

Ok, that’s fine—as far as it goes.  Obviously, the political boundaries separating “city” from “suburb” are arbitrary, and perhaps not all that helpful in understanding an ever-changing metropolis.

But the unsettling thing about Stadler’s writing is that—as far as I can tell—some of his facts are simply wrong.

  • Take his views on transportation. He makes a seemingly plausible claim that “car dependency does not reliably distinguish the suburb from the city.”  Maybe that sounds good—but I’m at a loss as to what it means.

    Sure, city dwellers often own cars; many have a hard time getting to where they need to go without them. Still, people who live in densely populated urban centers own fewer cars, and drive them less, than people who live in sparsely populated suburbs. That’s not just a conjecture or armchair theorizing—it’s as close to a rock-solid fact as any that I come across in my line of work. I’m a pretty skeptical person, but just about every available scrap of, you know, evidence I’ve found on the subject has convinced me that the built environment—and in particular, the combination of density, street connectivity, abundant transportation choices, and the ample mix of services and homes—has a strong, perhaps even even determinative, effect on how much residents drive. (See here for just one graph on the empirical relationship between driving and residential density; there’s plenty more graphs where that came from.) 

    So, contra Stadler, the more a place is like a tradtional “city,” the less its residents tend to drive; and car dependence goes hand in hand with “suburbs.”  Now, I’m sure there are ways of playing word games to make Stadler’s claim make some sense.  Perhaps there are places that have the density and transportation characteristics of a “city,” but is technically considered a “suburb.” Semantic games aside, it seems to me that Stadler’s core claim—that suburbanization doesn’t correlate with car dependence—resides in an “in-between city” of its own: somewhere between falsehood and nonsense.

    And unfortunately, that error makes me think twice about other things Stadler writes.  For example, he notes that tiny Mabton, Washington is the state’s second-densest municipality—and cites this as evidence that big-city living doesn’t actually equate with density.  But look at the map of Mabton (linked above).  It’s a tiny, isolated town with tight boundaries and just a few streets.  Nobody would plausibly think of it as either a city or a suburb. I can’t see that Mabdon’s nominal density has any relevance to the argument at hand; citing that “fact” does more to confuse the debate than enlighten it.  Nothing to see here, folks.

    That sort of thing brings me full circle, to the beginning of Stadler’s argument.  Remember that first sentence I quoted?

    Anyone interested in the city…has long since left the bourgeois pleasure grounds of the center to explore the urban landscapes springing up in the margins of the metropolitan area.

    Although Stadler, much to his credit, avoids the overt sneering of many anti-city commentors, the only thing I get out of that sentence is: “all the cool kids are in the suburbs now.” And it belies my own experience:  I’m far from cool, but I am interested in the city, and from what I’ve seen the cultural mixing of, say, Seattle’s International District, or certainly in parts of Vancouver and Portland, rivals anything you’ll find in the inner-ring suburbs.

    I shouldn’t be too critical of Stadler; I don’t know any more about his work than what I’ve read in The Stranger.  And to be charitable, he seems to have found a genuine silver lining to a well-documented trend that’s typically greeted with dismay—that inner-ring suburbs, the first wave of low-density development fueled by the rise of the auto, are losing both wealthier residents and political pull.  Folks like Myron Orfield note that this process can create all sorts of strains for a region. But as Stadler notes, it also means that some inner-ring suburbs are becoming more culturally and economically diverse, as real estate that used to be out of reach for recent immigrants is becoming more affordable.

    Still, I can’t shake the feeling that Stadler’s seeming disdain for the way center cities are shaping up buys into a long-standing American cultural narrative—city folks, whatever they are doing, whatever their origins and habits, are somehow suspect.  A decade or so ago, the trend was to deride center cities as dangerous, unliveable, in terminal decline.  Now we’re seeing the opposite trend:  anti-urban sentiment is targeted at wealthier new residents, who’ve allegedly “sterilized” the inner city, and sapped it of its cultural vitality.  City folk, I’m sure, are guilty of comparable inanities in describing suburbs.  I, for one, am tired of the finger pointing; so I’m going to go grab some good Pad Thai around the corner from my (decidedly urban) office, and head home to my formerly-considered-suburban but-now-considered-urban neighborhood, without worrying too much one way or the other about whether either place is in terminal decline.